Of all the problems a Christian must face in life, one of the most difficult must be sickness and suffering of a loved one. Your close friend finds out she has cancer. Your husband or wife starts showing early signs of Alzheimer’s. One of your children develops a rare form of auto-immune disease. A family relative has a head-injury which is affecting his performance at work. And what do you do? Well you cry out to God for help. You tell him what is going on. You say, “Lord Jesus, if ever I needed you, it’s now.” And what happens?
Your friend is not healed from cancer. The Alzheimer’s signs don’t appear to be going away. The relative with the head-injury only gets worse. It seems like God isn’t listening or doesn’t care or perhaps – both. Now you would never actually admit these things to anyone. Your theology tells you that God is all-loving and all-wise and he knows best. But your experience appears to be telling you something else. God isn’t doing what he is supposed to be doing (at least according to your logic). And that leaves you somewhat bewildered and confused.
The good news is that you are not alone. Jesus’s followers experienced this often. One example is in John chapter 11. It’s the famous passage of the raising of Lazarus, where Jesus gives one final supreme and undeniable proof that he is indeed who he claims to be – the Son of God who has authority over sin and death.
But that doesn’t come until the end. In the beginning, we see something very different. We see Jesus acting in a way that confuses and perplexes his followers. The story begins with Mary and Martha sending an urgent message to Jesus – “Lord, the one You love is sick” (11:3). This request for help isn’t coming just from anyone. It’s coming from the closest circle of Jesus’ friends. Notice how Jesus responds when he hears this message:
“This sickness will not end in death but is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (11:4)
The first thing Jesus does when he hears the news of Lazarus’ sickness is he puts in relation to the glory of God. This illness is about God’s glory. It is about the glory of the Son of God. It’s not primarily about sickness and death. Lazarus will die. There will be a death. But it’s not going to end that way. That’s not the end of the story.
This is the viewpoint we so desperately need isn’t it? When things go wrong, when life goes pear-shaped, when circumstances appears to be at their worst and all we see is sickness and suffering and death. We think that’s all there is to it. We don’t see what is going on behind the scenes. We don’t see God’s sovereign hand directing things for our good and his glory. We just see the pain.
Let’s move on:
“Now Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus.” (11:5)
We see now this is the third time John stresses the love Jesus has for this family. In verse 2 he highlights it is the same Mary who anointed Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair – that’s love. And in verse 3 – “the one you love is sick.” The one you love Jesus – that one. And now in verse 5 – “Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus.”
Why is John doing this? Because John knows what Jesus is about to do next will not seem like love to most people. Very few human beings think of love this way. You probably don’t think of love this way. And this is why this text turns our world upside down.
The key that unlocks this is found at the beginning of verse 6 – it’s the word “so.” It’s there in the original language and means “therefore.” So verses 5 and 6 read like this:
“Now Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. So [therefore] when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was.” (John 11:5–6, emphasis added)
Jesus knew perfectly well what this would mean. It would result in Lazarus’ death. We know this because after the two days were up he tells his disciples in verse 14, “Lazarus has died.” He said this before he saw him. He knew. He knew it then in verse 14 and also in verse 6. Jesus chose to let Lazarus die. And he wanted to ensure he was well and truly dead before he got there.
You might say, “Yeah but it really wasn’t that bad because Jesus knew he was going to raise him.” Try telling that to Lazarus. Lazarus’ death was still death. It’s never an easy thing to die – unless perhaps, it is a quick death. But not if it’s slow. And Lazarus’ sickness very likely meant a slow and horrible death.
Yet it was the love of Jesus to let Lazarus die. Look again at the connection between verse 5 and 6:
“Now Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. So [therefore] when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was.” (John 11:5–6)
He did not hurry to his side. He did not send a return message to Mary and Martha – “Don’t worry, I’ll be there. He’ll be OK.”
So how is this love? That’s the question we’re all asking, isn’t it? John is pushing us to this. He’s set us up. Jesus loved Mary and Martha. Jesus loved his friend Lazarus. So how is this love? The answer is in verse 4 but we don’t get the full picture until the end of the chapter.
“This sickness will not end in death but is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Another way of saying this is this illness will put God’s glory and my glory on display. It will put God’s power on display. And it will make Jesus look amazing.
Love let’s Lazarus die because his death will help them all see, in more ways than they know, the glory of God.
John Piper sums it up perhaps the best way I know with these words:
Love means giving us what we need most. And what we need most is not healing, but a full and endless experience of the glory of God. Love means giving us what will bring us the fullest and longest joy.
And what is that, Piper asks? What will give you full and eternal joy? The answer he says is clear in the text:
A revelation to your soul of the glory of God — seeing and admiring and marvelling at and savouring the glory God in Jesus Christ. When someone is willing to die — or let your brother die — to give you (and your brother) that, he loves you.
I don’t know what you are going through right now—what illness, what suffering, what difficulty or what trial. I hope this has brought you some comfort. I hope you understand now that your suffering is no accident but has been ordained by God for your good and God’s glory. I hope you understand that rather than causing you to doubt you are a child of God it in fact gives evidence that you are a true child of God.
It is always hard to suffer. But the Lord Jesus does not ask us to do anything that He has not done first. The fact that He has done it is an encouragement. He died, yet rose again triumphantly. He suffered, for you and me, but triumphed gloriously. And so shall those who have placed their trust in Him.
Never doubt God’s love in the midst of your suffering, beloved. Never doubt it for a minute. God loves his children deeply. He will put us through suffering, for reasons that are often beyond us, but that does not mean he is in any way uncaring or unfeeling or unsympathetic. He does care. And if you ever doubt that, you only have to revisit this passage. And recall the words of Lamentations 3:31-33,
“For the Lord will not reject us forever. Even if He causes suffering, He will show compassion according to His abundant, faithful love. For He does not enjoy bringing affliction or suffering on mankind.”
Remember this beloved. Always.